We're on the west coast.
Lost as usual. Maggie's insisting she be called something but no one's sure what because that half bottle of tequila she polished off all by herself is causing her words to slur. Whatever it is, whatever name or anagram, it's 'to honor the native people.' Iwan is rolling his eyes and still looks ticked off that she polished off the tequila. Sumner's going crazy digging around the dash board trying to fish out his tinted glasses before the sun starts it's slow, lazy crawl. Dak-Ho's cursing me for getting us lost and Toni's hissing that if she doesn't get food soon she will go into cardiac arrest.
It's not a pretty moment despite the fact that we're cruising through some of the prettiest stretch of land you could imagine. And we've got it all to ourselves, there's not another car in sight. But we're also coming off an all night partying jag and that well lit gas station, the only one we've seen in an hour, was closed. Dak-Ho is watching the needle like crazy and saying we won't make it to a gas station, so I guess it's good that I'm the one behind the wheel since despite the last 12 months, I still got a little hope left.
"YES!" Sumner squeals having found his dark glasses in time to beat the rising sun and apparently he now has the time to come to the aid of the driver just as four passengers are plotting her - my! - demise. He pops a CD into the player and for the moment the mobile insurgency comes to a halt.
Applause kicks out of the speakers. We're all ticking off possibilities. The Boss? Tori Amos? Sade? Ani DiFranco? Dave Matthews Band? A Prince bootleg? Something vintage? All these guesses and more are bursting out in a matter of seconds - can't be too many more than fifteen. Seconds or guesses.
Then the music comes on and Iwan is saying 'California surf!' but the vocal starts and Maggie swears, cross her heart, it's Grace Slick. There's something so familiar about the dark rumble of a voice but there's no way it's the one and only Slick.
Toni's flicking her lighter trying to see if Sumner has the case and Dak-Ho's doing that fake cough he does whenever he's afraid Toni's about to inflict secondhand smoke. The guitar player is going crazy on the bridge and the guitar's going out of tune.
"Perfection" sighs Maggie and I'm so on that page. In a world of plastic where even real artists feel the need to cheat a little by re-recording moments on a so called live recording this is real, this is reality and I'm flashing back on about a hundred concerts I've gone to in the last two years.
I miss the spoken segment before the second song until the woman mentions they are in Hamburg. I'm trying to identify her by her speaking voice and not really catching what she's saying. Then the voice started singing and it's like molasses pouring slowly out of a jar.
Been over this a hundred times
We’ve talked it till its blackened
It begins again and again there’s nothing we can say
My brain has derailed
My hands been nailed
To fall across my body like a death shroud
Your wound was plain like mine
No ragged edges
We grew to war like a bloom reaching toward the light
It felt so brutal so transdermal
Felt so alive
Felt so alive
She just nailed my last three relationships and the one I may or may not still be in. I'm looking around and everyone's nodding so on this we have at least reached agreement.
We still may run out of gas, Toni's still hungry, Maggie's still drunk, Dak-Ho's still fearful someone will light up and Iwan could probably use a drink. Note for future road trips, don't put Maggie in charge of the booze. But Sumner's got that self-admiring smirk like he's just gotten China and Taiwan to agree to something. Considering the drama and tensions that have now vanished as we roll down the road, maybe Sumner should be proud?
We've got feedback streaming out of the speakers - this is a real concert. 'Holy merde!' Iwan yells out only in English - watching the language guidlines here, you understand - 'It's Maria McKee!' just as McKee's saying something about High Dive.
Soon we're all "Baaaa-ba-ba-ba-baaa"ing along with her on 'High Dive' and all lost in our own reflections of McKee.
Maria McKee. You couldn't grow up on the west coast without hearing that name. She never really crossed over to the rest of the country the way she did there. We grew up hearing about her before we were old enough to see her. She was Janis. She was Dolly. She was Aretha. She could tear your heart apart and put it back together in a single song.
The real deal. She fronted the last great California band for years - Lone Justice. They grabbed an opening slot on a U2 tour and came close to hit-land with their song 'Shelter.'
I am full of grand ideas
I've been perfected now for years
Large is life
With a purpose
Are we finally going to play again
Is it time
Been rehearsing five years
Still a way to go
We better cancel it
We planned waiting for a break
One can't rush into these things
And we believed our mothers hung the moon
We stayed asleep forgetting what we knew
She's singing every word with such meaning that even
before Sumner allows us to look at the CD case, we just know she's written every word. To sing it that way, you pretty much had to live it. Maybe that was her problem? She really lived it.
In the time when she was always supposed to be the next big thing, numerous product came along. For instance, we got the greeting card 'wisdoms' of Mariah who sang every song like it was the hit before. Mariah and the other gals, couldn't we just give them gold already for vocal gymnastics so that we could hear someone who knew singing was about conveying something? Slap their faces on a box of cereal, maybe give them a tampon or shampoo commercial and move them on out of the way so that we could enjoy the real deal?
Feed me, feed me baby.
Need you, need you, need you baby
Only you can make me human
Only you make me a woman
I know why you come baby
I know why you stay baby
I've got something you want baby
Tell me it's okay
The vocal's coming out slurred with desperation clinging to the words. "Have I told you that?" she practically pleads at one point before screaming it.
In 1995, Alanis Morissette burst onto the scene. Though her voice lacked the dark tones and the upper register McKee navigates, it was the closest the top forty ever came to recognizing the sort of work McKee had been doing for years. Flattening out a vocal line for effect & feeling before letting the passion pour out all over again.
Alanis was glorified and quickly crucified because, in this country, we apparently like our women docile and unquestioning. Certainly we recoil from a woman with passion, one who might actually shake things up in the bed and not just lie there waiting to be worshipped. What is it that so threatens us? You'd hope women would embrace this sort of power coming from one of their own. You'd think straight males would especially be thrilled by such a woman who knew what she was doing - but maybe that's the source of their darkest fears 'If she knows about passion maybe she'll guess I'm sub-standard?' Trust me, fellows, after the first time, everyone's comparing. Straight, gay, bi. Male, female.
McKee's blending her voice into some sort of hushed, hoarse whisper that's floating past our ears:
I'm barely touching my lips
The full weight of you on top of me sleeping
And when you wake I'm awake
"Breathe" comes on and we're one loud, joyous scream as we rush to sing along.
I was scared when you came into my room
The walls became the sea, your voice was the moon
Oh when you rocked me in your arms
Like a song, a wave on the tide of you and
I will let you breathe through me
I will let you be with me
The best song on her first solo album. After Lone Justice kept chasing down the break that never came, McKee went solo. Some of the finest albums, some of the finest singing. But America's reaction was a collective yawn-shrug combo.
You've really got to hear this woman's voice to know how much you're missing. And she's going to the upper register now. She's graced us during the album with those notes that seem to soar to the heavens. But now she's working them. She's made us wait for them to be spotlighted in one song because they didn't fit the mood earlier. It can be maddening but it's an artist at work. Serving the song even if it means someone's saying, 'Hey where are those pretty notes she's famous for?' You've got to earn the right to hear them.
And when she holds out the 'I' in 'I will lay with you' you've been blessed. By the time 'Something Similar' comes on, we're all relaxed and grooving. She's fed us the high notes that are her trademark. Her range is still intact. She's worked us and made us pay attention to earn that glorious moment and we're all grinning. Dak-Ho doesn't even look irritated when Toni lights up.
We're collecting dust
Wearing out our socks
With our heads down the toilet
Stations of the cross
It's a simple thing
Nothing you'd remember
At this very minute
Does something similar
And just when she goes into her fade of "We all are collecting dust,' the song kicks back in and we're all chair dancing again. By the time she comes back for the encore, we're all feeling like we were there at Kampnagel in Hamburg, Germany.
I like live CDs but it's rare that I feel like I've been at the show just by listening. Most of the time, there's this wall between you and the performance and you're just waiting for the songs you know. McKee puts you into that club. She doesn't trot out the hits to satisfy you ('Shelter,' 'Ways to BeWicked,' 'Show Me Heaven,' and assorted others are nowhere to be found). She gives you ten songs that she committs herself to. She's performing them, living them. And if that's good enough for you, if a little reality can float across the artificial sea that passes for music made by humans, then she wants you on this trip with her.
Just as she's singing
Life is sweet life is sweet life is sweet
And the days keep rollin’ along
I'm pulling into a gas station. We pump the gas, hit the vending machines and the restrooms. All in silence. We're blown away by McKee. That's what real music can do - its power, its beauty. There aren't many artists around who still believe in art, might interfere with the movie debut or their product tie in if they committed themselves to a recording so better to just dabble at recording. But when you come stumble across a true one, it takes your breath away. In a year of disappointments, McKee comes along to give us all hope for 2005.